Muscle mass is the answer to developing the efficient body every high achiever wants. Having more muscle mass helps your metabolism run faster, keeps fat storage down, creates more energy, and defines the figure beneath the clothes. A strong physique commands respect and attention, al let's face it, we all want to look good naked. So let's explain the three laws you need to know to develop muscle mass.
I want to preface this by saying that no program will do any good if your sleep, recovery, and nutrition are in the tank. If you need to start there, read Run your Body Like a Business, Not a Side-Hustle for more help.
Law 1: Mechanical Tension
Mechanical Tension is pivotal in the development of muscle mass. Increasing the tension on the muscle through multi-joint lifts helps spark anabolic pathways within the body, releasing hormones that help build muscle mass. When external tension is placed upon the muscle, we can then add variability to change that stimulus to meet our needs. We can add stimulus to the muscle through various means like time under tension, range of motion, and mind-to-muscle connection.
- Time Under Tension - We can create more time under tension in a variety of ways, and the most common of those was the slow lowering of the weight (eccentrics) and paused reps. This allows us to manipulate the amount of time a muscle has to produce force. Eccentrics or a slow weight lowering will stress certain mechanisms in the muscle that will tear down the muscle more and cause a greater effect of growth. A pause rep will put the muscle at a disadvantage due to breaking up the stretch-shortening cycle (think like a rubber band) and cause the muscle to produce a lot of force and tension to overcome the paused position without any rebounding effect.
- Range of Motion - Changing the range of motion (ROM) allows us to either stretch the muscle to a higher degree or limit the amount of stretch. There have been numerous studies about whether full ROM or partial ROM stimulates muscle growth, and at the end of the day, a full ROM has more benefits. That being said, there is a time and a place to use shortened ROM for the sake of novelty in training and also burning out. One way to utilize partial ROM is to do full ROM movements until you cannot finish the full rep and then do partials until total fatigue. Full ROM exercises will be superior for the fact that the longer a muscle gets lengthened out, the more it has the ability to contract.
- Mind-to-Muscle Connection - This concept is probably not new to anyone. However, I do think it gets undervalued. Just as I mentioned above, with full range of motion allowing for better contraction, that contraction will be more helpful if I have a good connection with the muscle I am using. Going through the motions and doing rep after rep just to finish the workout will not yield the same results as would if there is a good mental connection. The better control we have over a muscle will lead to better execution and results.
These means are best used early in the training session with bigger compound muscle movements, like a squat, leg press, bench press, etc, because they can be very taxing on the body. To avoid overtraining, I would only program the big exercises at the beginning of the session for 3-5 sets of 1-6 reps. Keep it lower in volume, but heavier and with more tension.
Law 2: Muscle Damage
Muscle damage is the goal of training. Plain and simple, if there is no tissue to repair, then there will not be growth. Everyone has heard that you have to break down the muscle to be able to repair it, and this is that concept. This is best characterized in the body as the “pump.” When we break down the fuel sources in the muscle (carbs, fats, proteins), we teach the body that we need more fuel to overcome the stress of the workout placed on the muscle. Week after week, through progressively adding weight, reps, ROM, or tension, we provide the stimulus needed to break down the muscle and cause a need for repair. As I mentioned before, without having our recovery dialed in, we limit our ability to grow.
We can create more muscle damage by maintaining a good mind-to-muscle connection and being intentional with our reps with weights that allow us to sit in the 8-15 rep range.
Law 3: Metabolic Stress
This law happens deep in the muscle tissue at the cellular level. It comes from multiple repeated bouts of training, progressing the muscle week to week. As the cells are damaged, the body responds by sending a specific type of cell to the area to repair the tissue. This response tends to happen during high reps, eccentrics, and burnout sets.
Burnout sets need to happen at the end of a session. If you can do more than 2-3 “burnout” sets, then it's not a true burnout. The proper amount of weight should prevent you from doing more than 2-3 sets of burnout and thus will ensure the proper amount of tension to elicit change. The rep ranges in this category will be 15-25+ for 2-3 sets.
Putting it Together
We can see from the explanations above how well the muscle can respond to different training stimuli. Now I want to give you an example of how this can look in a program. We want to make sure our emphasis on mechanical tension happens at the beginning of the session with big compound movements. We follow this with our accessories focusing on muscle damage with moderate to higher reps. Then finishing off the training with metabolic stress focused on higher reps.